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William Byrd’s reputation, Edmund H Fellowes, 1923

December 31, 2013
William Byrd (1540-1623)

This extract is from William Byrd A Short Account of his Life and Work by Edmund H Fellowes, 1923. The illustration is a portrait of William Byrd (1540-1623) by Vangergucht (possibly Michael van der Gucht).                      

Whatever private disputes and troubles Byrd may have endured, there can be no doubt at all that he was held in the highest esteem and veneration by all the musicians of his own time; and not by musicians only, for the list of patrons to whom his eight published volumes were dedicated is in itself evidence that he commanded great respect in aristocratic circles.  Thus he and Tallis dedicated their joint volume of Cantiones Sacrae in 1575 to Queen Elizabeth herself;  the first volume of his own Cantiones Sacrae was dedicated in 1588 to Lord Worcester, and the second set in 1591 to Lord Lumley.  The 1588 Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs had Sir Christopher Hatton as their patron; Lord Hunsden was patron of Songs of Sundrie Natures in 1589; the two books of Gradualia in 1605 and 1607 were dedicated to Lord Northampton and Lord Petre respectively; and the 1611 book of Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets to Lord Cumberland.

But the approval of the contemporary musicians is even more interesting than that of the leading nobles; many of these musicians were Byrd’s own pupils.  He made reference to the fact in the prefatory address in his first set of Gradualia, where he wrote of “complures ex meis in re musica discipulis viris sane ea arte egregie peritis”, lamenting that so many of them had already passed away.  Morley, who was perhaps the greatest of Byrd’s pupils, was one of those who was no longer living when Byrd wrote this, and it was Morley who declared that Byrd was “never without reverence to be named of the musicians”. Another of his great pupils was Thomas Tomkins, who described him as his “ancient and much reverenced Master”.

An anonymous admirer signing himself G. Ga: wrote an epigram which is printed in the second volume of Byrd’s Gradualia; in this he calls Byrd “the parent of British Music”; and the same title was also given jointly to Tallis and Byrd in 1575 when they published their book of Cantiones Sacrae.  The clerk who recorded Byrd’s death in the Chapel Royal cheque-book perhaps had these two references in mind when he added to the bare entry of Byrd’s name the significant tribute “a Father of Musicke”.  And gratuitous little comments, such as that which John Baldwin, the Windsor lay-clerk and famous musical scribe, appended to one of Byrd’s compositions in the “Lady Nevell” Virginal Book, all point in the same direction to show that Byrd stood supreme among English musicians in the minds of ordinary people.  To Baldwin he was homo mirabilis.  It was Baldwin, too, who closed his important manuscript collection (c.1600) in the Royal Music Library, until recently kept at Buckingham Palace but now in the British Museum, with a poem in which he placed Byrd above all the composers of his time, not only English but foreign also.  This was no mere beating of the patriotic drum, as some might think, for Baldwin’s experience was a wide one, and his collections show him to have been a man of fine taste and knowledge.    Moreover, the more closely Byrd’s work and that of his Continental contemporaries is examined, the truer does Baldwin’s estimate appear; and to say this is in no sense to disparage the work of Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Luca Marenzio, and many more; but if we consider Byrd’s versatility alone, and the fact that he produced work of the highest class in every field that he explored, it becomes abundantly clear that he did stand above all his contemporaries.  Like Palestrina, he wrote magnificently for the Latin rites of the Church.  Nor was he behind any of his contemporaries in his capacity for handling ingenious and complex contrapuntal devices such as were in vogue among the Church musicians of the sixteenth century.  His contrapuntal skill was astonishing.  Like Tallis, Tye, and Robert Whyte, he excelled in music for the English Church whether for the Latin or English rites.  Like Marenzio, Wilbye, and Weelkes, he could write finely in the madrigalian style, not only when treating the severer subjects, where again he stands alone, but also in the lighter vein, as we shall see presently when dealing more closely with this branch of the subject.  Like Bull, Gibbons and Giles Farnaby, he wrote with exceptional fertility of invention for the keyed instruments of his day, yet here again he excelled the others; while for the viols he produced chamber-music which today amazes students of musical form when its date is borne in mind.  Forgotten as he and his music have been for the greater part of the three hundred years which have elapsed since his death, William Byrd, the great Englishman, the contemporary of Shakespeare, is once more being spoken of with reverence by the musicians.  The notable revival of interest in the music of the Tudor School which has taken place in the past quarter of a century has inevitably given special prominence to the work of the man who in his own day was regarded as the parent of British music.  It is not possible to suppose that Byrd’s music will ever again lapse into oblivion.

Fellowes, Edmund H., William Byrd A Short Account of his Life and Work, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923, pp.21-26.


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